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The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
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307 of 336 people found the following review helpful
In my 56 years, I've read several books that have changed my life--brought me greater understandings, taught me things I didn't know, mesmerized me so much that I took the books with me everywhere I went--even reading at stop lights! The Lemon Tree is right up there with The Haj, Hawaii, and Night. This history fills in all the gaps of my previous knowledge. So many people have questions about the Middle Eastern conflicts and all of those questions are answered in this book. My friends and I agree that we all SHOULD know more about the Middle East situation, but rarely do we want to sit down and study a history book. This book is full of facts, but it's a page turner!I could hardly put it down. My life was on hold. One day I was reading The Lemon Tree and I actually started crying. There were heart-stopping moments, too. Very exciting! A thriller! I want to meet the real people in the book so much. They are so brave, both Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews. I love how Sandy Tolan showed Israel through different view points, e.g. al-Ramla through Arabic eyes and Ramla through Israeli eyes. It helped shift my thinking as I was reading. Everyone simply has to read this book, both sides, all sides!
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174 of 194 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2006
Who has a heart large enough to contain compassion both for the longing for Zion, for sanctuary, for homeland, of the Jewish survivors who emigrated to the nascent Israel after WWII, and at the same time the longing for return, for justice, for homeland, of the Palestinians who were expelled from the homes they had occupied for generations to make room for what was to become Israel?

Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree, has, and when you read this remarkable book your heart, too, will stretch until it is large enough to encompass the whole.

If you don't know the history of Palestine and Israel, read this book. It is a true story, but it reads like a novel. It's a page-turner that tells "Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Israel and Palestine, but were afraid to ask."

If you know the history, but you find the subject difficult to discuss with others, read this book for back-up. Every event is documented in the extensive source notes. Arab accounts of what occurred around 1948 have long been available. Israeli Army reports of the same events were declassified only 50 years after the fact. Only since then have the disparate narratives begun to intertwine into one coherent story of what happened in 1948 and after. All of the historic phenomena are documented here from both Israeli and Palestinian sources.

If you follow the news of the region, and therefore you despair, read this book. You'll discover that hope prevails -- in the care of those who sneak across borders to knock on doors, and those who, having considered and rejected more conventional responses to presumed enemies, instead answer, "Yes. Please come in."
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294 of 340 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2006
This book is both a "must read" and at the same time it is deeply flawed. If you are seeking an emotional and decidedly gripping account of the Middle-east conflict this is an excellent choice. It will also serve admirably to put a face on both sides of the conflict. It should challenge the everyone who already associates themselves with a position on the matter to question their beliefs and to seriously consider the point of view of the other side in a meaningful way.

That said, where this book falls down is in the objectivity department. Put simply the author clearly attempted mightily to be unbiased and balanced but still allowed personal bias and spin to infiltrate the book. In its weakest form, the author's bias makes him much more likely to credit accounts favorable to the Palestinian Arabs and hostile to the Palestinian Jews* (Hereafter "Israelis"). He often sites sources and historians with a known and recognizable agenda, as well as "fringe" sources. However, this is largely forgivable because he sometimes also provides a balancing point of view to compensate or at least admits when facts are in significant dispute.

However, a worse failing is the tendency to systematically "spin" information to the determent of Israel. For example, in a later chapter on the 2nd Indefada (the riots, or uprisings, or terrorist acts, or insurgency -depending on who you ask- of 2000 and following years) he mentions the Israeli accusation that Palestinian gunmen operated from behind a screen of civilians, usually children. He goes on to say that a UN investigation revealed that this was "the exception rather than the rule." This is a case of "spin" when one considers that the UN actually confirmed that the Israeli accusation was founded in fact. To call it the "exception" is casting the evidence in light as favorable to one side as possible. In other cases, he presents facts that are generally very well established and corroborated by neutral sources or even the Arabs as "Israeli assertions." For example, he mentions villages that the Israelis cleared after capturing them in the 6Day War because "Israelis claimed" they had participated in attacks on Jewish forces during the 1948 War. He does not mention that the NY Times and the Jordanian Army also confirmed that fact. To add the phrase "Israel claims" etc. indicates that the following may not be true; it can and should be used when there is real doubt but not when all reputable (Arab, Jew, and Other) sources agree on a fact. Nor does he mention that these villagers were compensated at the time. I am not saying that there was justification for that act, which is certainly debatable, but it is revealing that it was not mentioned. It robs several of the hard questions of balance

Other times, he ignores inconvenient evidence from highly reputable or significant sources. This is a pity because often I would have liked to see his assessment of the ignored evidence. One such piece of evidence that would go to the actual heart of his book was Israeli claims that they expelled the Arab inhabitants of Lyda or Lod (a town next to the one in central to his narrative and one he discusses on multiple occasions) only after they turned on the Israelis after having surrendered to them.

After that catalogue of problems, perhaps it is surprising that I honestly recommend this book as one of two that a person MUST read in order to understand the historical context of the conflict. The other, FYI, is O'Jerusalem which, I admit, leans a bit towards the Jewish side. I also do praise the author for attempting balance even if he does not always succeed. Ideally the two books should be read one after the other as they will give the reader a very balanced view of the problem with one leaning a little towards the Arabs while the other leans a little towards the Jews.

The Lemon Tree is a griping, if flawed, personal account of the struggle that continues to have terrible ramifications 60 years after the UN voted to create a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine.

*The Jewish population of the region were commonly referred to as "Palestinians" or "Palestinian Jews" until the creation of the Jewish State in 1948, at which point they began to be referred to as Israelis. Sorry about the nitpick, but terminology is important.
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74 of 84 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 19, 2006
Sandy Tolan's THE LEMON TREE encapsulates the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma better than anything I've read to date. It does so by telling the true story of two families who occupied and loved the same house in the West Bank town of Ramla: the Palestinian Khairis who built it and lived in it up until 1948 and the Bulgarian Jewish Eshkenazis who lived in it from 1948 until 1984. It is the perfect metaphor for the intractable problem of two peoples who have historical claims to the same piece of real estate.

Tolan's central figures are Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi who meet for the first time in the aftermath of the Six Day War and maintain a tenuous friendship into the 21st century. His narrative has a distinctly novelistic style. (In fact another Amazon reviewer refers to it as "a trashy, bitter novel") Tolan begins by introducing the reader to Bashir's and Dalia's parents in the 1930's and describing the societies in which they lived. As with Austen or Tolstoi, one absorbs social, historical, and political context while trying to guess where the story is leading.

For example, I learned in passing that Axis member Bulgaria did the best job of any nation in Europe of protecting its Jewish population from the Nazi death camps. One also encounters future leaders of Israel and of Fatah in unexpected places in Tolan's narrative. The order to expel the Arab inhabitants of Lydda and Ramla during the 1948 War was given by Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin. Abu Jihad, Arafat's right hand, who helped launch the first Intifada, was among the children expelled from Ramla.

THE LEMON TREE is not a feel-good book. Other reviewers have drawn hopeful conclusions from the relationship of Bashir and Dalia and from the planting of a new lemon tree at the house in Ramla. I am less sanguine.

Bashir Khairi, trained as a lawyer, has spent most of his adult life in Israeli prisons or in exile. The prison in Ramla where he was incarcerated was built on an olive grove which had belonged to his family for twelve generations. Bashir's conviction that the land of Israel and Palestine should be transformed into a single, secular, democratic state has few supporters among Palestineans or anywhere else in the world. Dalia continues to act on the belief that individuals behaving with good will can begin to heal the wounds that Israelis and Palestinians have inflicted on each other and upon themselves. Neither approach seems to offer a great deal of hope at the moment.
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2006
"The Lemon Tree", a is a very compelling book about the Middle East conflict. Sandy Tolan presents a comprehensive history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, with meticulous documentation of sources at the end of the narrative.

The history is weaved around the personal stories of two families who lived in the same house, and specifically two individuals in those families. We are first introduced to Bashir, whose father built the house in the town of El-Ramla and which his family occupied until they were forced out by Israeli soldiers in 1947.

we then meet Dalia, the daughter of Bulgarian parents who emigrated to Israel in 1948, and who lived in the house from 1948 on.

Following the 6 Day War in 1967, Bashir travels from Ramallah, where his family now lives, to Ramla to see the house, and is greeted by Dalia, who, after hesitating a moment, invites him in. This first encounter spawns a life-long relationship between the two, despite their ideological and political differences, and despite the widely divergent paths that their lives take.

The Lemon Tree is a powerful book. As a critical but strong supporter of Israel, I felt that the author sometimes shifted the sentiment in favor of the Palestinian cause, giving somewhat short thrift to Israel's legitimate security concerns, and to the dark policy choices it must often face given the fact that it is a tiny country surrounded by hostile nations and peoples. Nonetheless, it is difficult for even the most ardent Zionist to condone some of the tactics used by Israel to try to quell the social and political unrest both within and outside of its borders.

In many ways, The Lemon Tree is a disturbing book, insofar as it sometimes leaves the reader feeling that the chasm between the two sides will never be bridged. So long as the Palestinians insist on the right to return to the lands which they once occupied, even at the expense of dismantling the Jewish state and uprooting those who now occupy the houses and lands once belonging to Palestinian Arabs, peace seems virtually impossible to achieve.

In any event, despite the fact that the book tends to justify and rationalize the violent actions of the Palestinians fighting for their perceived rights, while taking a condemnatory view towards Israeli actions, the chief heroine of this book is Dalia, who remains a voice of compassion, empathy and reason in a sea of madness. It is a book well worth reading.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2007
(Also in audio book by High Bridge Audio and read by author)

The struggle between Israel and Palestine has been going on so long, it's easy to forget that before 1947, there was no state called Israel, no Palestinian refugees. But there were Palestinian Arabs. And there were Jews. And the events that led up to the creation of Israel threw individuals from both of these backgrounds together, their lives forever entwined over a common heritage on a piece of land, once called Palestine.

Sandy Tolan gives us a chance to experience the human dimensions of this bitter conflict. Through interviews and extended research, he follows the lives of two individuals: Bashir Khairi, a Palestinian Arab whose family was forced at gunpoint to flee their home in al-Ramla, and Dalia Eshkenazi, a Jew whose family fled the Nazis and took up residence in the very home which Bashir's family left behind. The two eventually met in 1967, when Bashir made a brave pilgrimage from the refugee camps of the West Bank to see his childhood home. Dalia, unlike many of the Jews in the area, invited him inside, and the two struck up an unusual friendship that has survived decades, ideological differences, and even war.

Tolan details Palestine's history, including the creation of the state of Israel, the role of Britain and the UN in partitioning up the land, and the series of wars that followed, in which Israel slowly acquired nearly all of what was once called Palestine.

-- He explains Zionism, the desire of the Jews for their own homeland, free from persecution, and how that desire led the Jews and the Western world to claim lands in Palestine.

-- He examines the Palestinian refugees' equally strong desire for the right of return to their family homes, and how that desire led to the creation of organizations such as Hamas, considered "terrorist" organizations by the West, but considered by the Palestinians as their only hope to draw the world's attention to the injustices done to them.

The incredible thing about this fantastic book is its ability to show both sides with empathy and understanding, to highlight how complicated this conflict really is.

Armchair Interviews says: Author Tolan is a veteran print and radio journalist who teaches international reporting at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and has appeared on NPR.
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36 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2006
I rarely read a non-fiction book that is a page-turner. This is the rare one. The Lemon Tree had me wanting to come home after work and pick up my reading where I had left off. This book manages to present the extremely complicated events of the last 60 years of the Palestenian/Israeli conflict in a narrative that informs while also being extremely moving. The Lemon Tree contains detailed information based on first hand research about Israeli policies towards Palestinians that are often glossed over for fear of offending. I hope that Sandy Tolan's impressive research insulates this important historical book from being viewed as a anti-Israeli work. By telling the history of the region through the eyes of 2 real individuals, one an Israeli survivor of the Holocaust and the other a Palestinian who lost his home and town to Israel, Tolan humanizes history in a way that gives one a sense of hope.
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31 of 39 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 7, 2006
I found answers to questions I didn't know I had as I read through this reprise of two families' histories, one leaving Europe following the holocaust, the other dispossesed from their Palestinian home by a political settlement formed in Europe. Beginning with the surprising (to me) discussion of the decent behavior of the Bulgarians towards their Jewish citizens, the novel moves on contrasting the lives of Dalia Eshkenazi and Bashir Khairi and a house they both could lay claim to, a house with two histories, in the village of al-Ramla. The book is a novel but undergirded by massive research including interviews, use of many printed sources, written by Sandy Tolan, whose work often is heard on NPR. The novel ends on a truthful and hopeful note as the house becomes a place where Arab, Jew and Christian may meet and educate their young.
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34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2006
It is amazing the increased depth of `understanding' I have now for the issues facing Israelis and Palestinians. It is a fascinating history portrayed with finesse and sensitivity via this author and his linking the large events to the more human, personal struggles of two families.

How I know this book is enlightening is this: I read the news yesterday and actually understood what I read about what is going on this week over there. I mean I really understood it, and I cared...and it didn't feel like it was happening a million miles from here. Even for someone well traveled and educated, this issue's context has been elusive for me.

I wanted to learn, and this book helped me do that using facts and real human perspective.
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
If you want to understand the ongoing conflict in Palestine and Israel, this is the first book you should read and you should recommend it to everyone you know. If you have any compassion, you cannot read this book without gaining both a true and heartfelt historical perspective on both the Zionist and Palestinian narratives on the origins of the conflict and the reasons the conflict continues. This is a complex and brilliantly compiled story that should force the reader to question old and inaccurate assumptions and challenge efforts to look for real solutions. One of the most important books I have ever read.
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